What Project-Based Learning Really Looks Like (Warts and All)

A few weeks ago, I find myself writing notes for this blog post during class, taking a quick break from reviewing a student’s self-designed writing prompt on Google Drive. I’m also done showing another student a few audio editing tips on Garageband.

I’m leaning back in my faux-leather teacher chair, clipboard in hand, scanning the room, and I notice the following: most students are engaged in something, although it’s hard to tell exactly what they are doing, given that they’ve designed their final exam projects in my Digital and Social Media Literacies (DSM) elective class.

I’m removed from being the focal point of the classroom, hoping that playing teacher-as-facilitator will pay off.

Ted is helping Cassie and Jakayla place text on an audio slideshow–he’s a veteran media creator from one of digital storytelling courses, and they seem to prefer listening to him versus me. Devon and Tabitha leave the room with my permission, microphone and notebooks in hand, heading to search for subjects to interview about online vs. real-life personas. They have a look of determination about them that I’ve never seen after passing out a worksheet or test, that’s for sure.  

Allisha is working on improving her digital footprint by creating a blog about her passion for photography but seems stumped. “Mr. B, I don’t know how to set up a background image,” she asks me, programmed to automatically ask the teacher after years of traditional instruction and top-down classroom cultures.

“I don’t either, but I bet one of your classmates does,” I respond.  Sure enough, Brandon comes to the rescue and points out how to make changes on the blog dashboard.  Her blog now displays her picture of a snow-blanketed Kentucky street during a frigid February dawn. It’s another small win demonstrating the potential power of PBL.

Unfortunately, Jaden is starting to nod off as the muffled sound of quiet snoring catches my attention; apparently, he’s lost interest in considering whether or not Google is making us stupid.  

I’d say 75% of the students are working diligently.The messiness of PBL is on full display, but it seems to be working. It’s certainly not perfect, but I’m trying to give students the opportunity to solve problems and collaborate through discussion and technology tools–we’re striving to practice the oft-mentioned 21st Century skills extolled by bloggers, pundits, teachers, and policy-makers alike.  

How We Arrived:

In schools under pressure to raise standardized test scores and challenged by implementing Common Core State Standards, the scene above is increasingly rare. Walk into any classroom and you’ll likely see various levels of direct instruction (including my junior English course). Teachers are under immense pressure to prepare kids for tests, quantify student learning, and cover standards: PBL is often viewed as incompatible with these charges.

Thankfully, my administration is supportive of a balanced instructional approach, leading to my design of Unleashing Digital Storytelling and DSM. These classes are not part of any high-stakes accountability system and I’m allowed and encouraged to pursue PBL.  

With three weeks left in the DSM class, I was still unsure about the final assessment. I’m not a traditional testing fan–I prefer student writing or other performance products–so I decided to let the students design their finals. Edutopia has compiled this comprehensive page of research-based evidence supporting PBL–basically, if implemented well, PBL often leads to better learning outcomes than traditional school work.

Of course, doing PBL well is really tough. The kids and I soon devised a rubric together that would encompass any project type. We analyzed a few projects from previous classes in my attempt to raise the expectations bar. When designing their projects, students also had to identify which skills and learning targets they would strive to demonstrate mastery on over the course of their work. I also required students to keep track of their daily project work via planning documents on Google Drive.  

Despite what I consider to be my best attempt at thorough PBL implementation, some students still floundered and turned in work worthy of two days of effort rather than two weeks of dedicated inquiry. Learned helplessness is tough to break. On the other hand, many students exceeded expectations by allowing themselves to pursue new questions and skills that wouldn’t have emerged in a traditional classroom setting. Overall, I consider the project a success, and I hope to hear more stories of PBL implementation–warts and all–especially in diverse schools with a huge range of student ability.

There’s undoubtedly tension between 21st Century Learning rhetoric–aligned with PBL, of course–and what really goes on in many classrooms due to top-down mandates. I’m worried that until high-stakes testing is marginalized to become a smaller part of student and school accountability, kids will be further left behind with missed opportunities to develop creative, collaborative, and problem-solving skills through PBL.

Teachers, what are some insights you’ve gained regarding implementing PBL in the classroom? If you haven’t tried PBL before, what’s holding you back? To what extent is the testing and accountability industry–and related pressure–holding school systems back from more innovative and student-driven classroom instruction?